This topic originated from an interesting post in the forum section of my website: www.fullcontactpoker.com.
There was a long discussion about one particular hand that a supposedly solid player had been in. Several posters suggested that this hot-shot player made a critical error that had to be a losing play in the long run. They saw this apparent lapse of judgment, on one isolated hand, as proof that he simply wasn’t the strong player he was purported to be.
My response was somewhat controversial. I wrote something like, “If you never attempt non-fundamental plays — plays that might be considered ill-advised in the short-run — you’ll actually limit the amount you can win at poker.”
It’s obvious that every player makes mistakes. Sometimes, though, what seems to be a mistake is really just a marginal play. Here’s the thing: These plays can actually yield more profit in the long-run than a textbook move. And that’s especially true when these moves are intentionally designed to deceive opponents who wrongly assume that your play is easy to predict.
You see, every poker decision can be broken down into two categories: those with positive expected value and those with negative expected value. A play that has positive EV is one that will make you money in the long-run. The opposite occurs with negative EV; these plays will ultimately cost you chips.
There’s a wrinkle, however. Sometimes a play that appears to have negative EV on paper, when used sporadically, can actually deliver positive EV. That can only happen, however, if you own an unpredictable table image and can cause your opponents to misjudge your skill level.
It’s important to note that attempting a controversial negative EV play will likely be effective only in higher-limit games. That’s where you’ll find skilled players who pay close attention to betting patterns, take notes on their opponents, and have a solid understanding of fundamental poker strategy. In these games, there’s a real opportunity to win by using deception.
On the other hand, if you’re playing in a low-limit game with novice players, avoid negative EV plays altogether. Instead, profit from your opponents’ inevitable fundamental mistakes — mistakes that skilled high-limit players rarely make.
Here’s a hand that illustrates why it’s so problematic to be perceived as a predictable player who always seems to play by the book.
In a big money short-handed No Limit Hold’em game, you raise to $600 with Kh-5h. The button re-raises to $2,100.
The textbook play would be to fold your hand. Advanced players understand positional disadvantage and wouldn’t attempt to play such a marginal hand out of position. Calling a raise with Kh-5h, hoping to catch a miracle on the flop, would be a long-term loser.
The problem is simple: On those occasions when you do call a raise, your opponents would be able to narrow down your range of hands. They’d sense that you wouldn’t call a raise unless you had some sort of strength. And because they would always retain position, they’d likely continue to re-raise to better define your hand.
But by occasionally calling with weaker hands, and sometimes even re-raising, you would add valuable unpredictability to your game. It would become more difficult for opponents to get a read on your hand and could even translate into positive EV in future hands.
So, when you look at the Kh-5h example on its own, it’s clear that the play has negative short-term EV, but over the long-term, it can produce positive results.
Poker isn’t about one isolated hand; it’s a long-term game. If you face the same players every week, you’ll need to occasionally step over the line of fundamental play. That will surely keep your opponents guessing.
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